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The Art of Saying "No"

| January 20, 2015

by Jim Bruce

Almost everyone I run into bemoans their busyness, the large number of To Do’s that are in front of them, and the seeming inability to make headway in reducing the length of the list.  Author and consultant David Allen suggests that the typical mid-level manager, at any one time, spanning all aspects of his or her life, has 40 – 70 projects (a project being anything that takes more than one step to finish) and 150 – 200 next action steps.  (As an aside, you really do have to have a system – beyond your brain – to manage all this or else items will always get lost.)

Many of the items on our To Do lists come from our proclivity to say “Yes” to almost all the requests and opportunities that come our way. This leads to the question, why do we say “Yes” so much? Here are some answers I’ve heard:

1.    We really want to do it. In spite of everything already on our desk, this new “thing” is
really something that we want to do.

2.    We should do it. Given our position/role, we should say “Yes.”  It will provide new
relationships, access to a different network, an opportunity to learn new skills, etc.

3.    We are required to do it.  It’s our job; our boss says do it.

4.    We fear that if we say “No,” our status with the requestor will diminish.

5.    We fear that if we say “No,” similar requests/opportunities will cease to come forward in
the future.

6.    We have a habit of always saying “Yes.”

7.    We want to be known for our helpfulness.

Since each of us is bombarded with requests and opportunities each day, we need to be prepared when the next request arrives. We might do this by:

1.    Knowing our current commitments and deliverables. How much time, and when, do you have available for new commitments?

2.    Realizing that saying “No” is hard. You need to find time to practice. Try different
phrases/sentences for saying “No” so that you’ll have a starting point for many of the
situations that you will encounter:

•   No, I have a commitment at that time.

•   No, I’d like to be a part of that project, but I won’t have time to be involved until

•   That sounds like a tremendous opportunity. But, I have hard deadlines that will keep
me from participating.

•   …

In some instances, it may be appropriate to preface what you say by “I’m sorry but…;” and, sometimes it may not be as saying this may make it seem that it’s your fault for
not being available. The best approach may just be to simply to state the facts.

3.    Your time, particularly time that is discretional, is valuable, especially to you. So, get the details. When you do get an invitation, other than for a one-time, less than a one-hour commitment, get the details and ask for at least 24 hours to think over any

• One-time brainstorming meeting with follow-up discussions – what is the subject, how long, how many discussions, why do you need to be involved, who else will be involved, etc.

• “Small” software change.  Exactly what change, what approval process was followed, 
how long it will take, what skills are required, are you the best person for the task, 

•   …

You get the idea.  Make sure you have all the facts before you make the commitment.

4.    Evaluate the request.  How important is it to you?  Why should you say “Yes”?

5.    Prioritize the work on your To Do lists so you can decide whether you should take the
highest priority item from those lists instead of something new.

Now, you’ve heard the request, you’ve thought about it, and it’s time to make and announce your decision; what do you say?

1.       No, I’ve evaluated the work you’ve asked me to do and I just cannot take it on now.

2.       No, I’ve evaluated the project and cannot take it on.  However, I’ve checked around and
________, who has all the necessary skills, has time now do the work.

3.       No, I cannot do the project as you requested.  I did notice in my review that what you
propose could be segmented so that the most needed part, which I could take on, could
be done now with the remainder done several months from now.

4.       Just suck it up and do it.  This may be the most appropriate response when the request
is of significant importance personally or if it’s from your boss or from your spouse or
significant other.

And, there are a large variety of additional responses that can build on these themes.  It’s your opportunity to work to get the best result for you and for your organization.

Three closing thoughts:

1.       It’s OK to say “No.”  Give yourself that permission.  In “The Art of No,” Jennifer Maffett
writes: “… you need to remember one important thing – the oxygen mask.  On an
airplane, you are told to always put the oxygen mask on yourself before you help
 someone else.  There is a really good reason for this.  If you aren’t breathing you won’t
be able to help someone else.  If you are saying yes to too many things, you aren’t
breathing.  You aren’t taking care of yourself, so you can forget about saving the world and doing all those things that are important to you.  Breathe.”

2.       If you get pushback, remember you’ve done your homework and have determined that you don’t have the bandwidth.  Stay on point.  It’s a matter of if you do the requested task, some commitment you have will not be met.

3.       Being unable to say no and not establishing clear boundaries at work, at home, and in other areas of your life, can leave you overburdened, fatigued, and feeling that you are
being taken advantage of.  You do not want to go there.


1.       David Allen, Google Talks:  GTD and the Two Keys to Sustaining a Healthy Life and Work
Style, October 19, 2007.

2.       Holly Weeks, “Say No Without Burning Bridges,” HBR Blog Network.“

3.       “The Gentle Art of Saying ‘NO’ at Work,” Cornell University, Faculty and Staff Assistance Program.

4.       Jennifer Marffett, “The Art of No,” Huffington Post.


I trust that you will take some time this week to begin to put this tool to work.  .  .    jim